When Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner goes to work, she immerses herself in jazz, Kansas City history and the legacy of the African-American contributions to local culture.
Kositany-Buckner is the new executive director of the American Jazz Museum, one of the major assets of the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. The museum shares a building and a lobby with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Since it opened in 1997, the museum has sought to celebrate American jazz and Kansas City’s musical history. The Blue Room, a jazz club adjacent to the museum, has become a popular venue for music and spoken-word performers.
A native of Kenya, Kositany-Buckner moved to the U.S. in 1983 when she was 19, earned a degree in computer information systems from Central Missouri State University and settled in Kansas City, where two of her brothers had already moved. She and her husband, Byron Buckner, have two daughters.
She assumed her duties at the museum in early March. To do so, she left her job as deputy director of the Kansas City Library, where she had worked 25 years.
Recently we sat down with Kositany-Buckner to get her perspective on her job, the museum and the city.
Q: What do your parents do in Kenya?
A: My parents are ranchers, very large-scale farming. They also owned a number of businesses in Kenya, including tourism businesses.
Q. How did you come to make Kansas City home?
A. It’s a very good question. My brothers were already in the U.S. and when I wanted to further my studies after I graduated school, I wanted to come to the U.S. Even though I love Kansas City and Missouri, especially, as my home now, it wasn’t really my first choice. I wanted to go to Texas or California where it was warm.
I had two brothers over here and some cousins and some friends from the hometown I came from. And I think for Dad, he saw that if it was good enough for my brothers, it was good enough for me. And so that’s why I ended up in the Midwest. And it’s home now and I love it.
Q: Are your brothers still here?
A: No. (One) brother is long passed away now. He went back home to Kenya. My other brother is in Kenya. They all went back. … I’m the only one who ended up residing in the United States.
Q: What was your first job in Kansas City?
A: Nobody has asked me that before. Actually, the first job was Marion Labs doing some data-entry work. I think I stayed there for six months. And the next was Helzberg Diamonds and it was their main headquarters on Baltimore. … And my next job was the library and I stayed at the library 25 years before I came to the museum.
Q: Was it a tough choice to leave the library?
A: I would say it was bittersweet. I wouldn’t say it was tough.
This is a great opportunity for me to be the executive director of this museum and move the mission of this organization forward. I look at it as a progression of my career. I will continue to work in partnership with the library and all of the cultural institutions.
A number of connections I made at the library and the library itself will continue … because I believe in collaboration and especially collaboration among cultural institutions. I don’t think a cultural institution can be an island.
Q: Are you a jazz fan?
A: Yes. My childhood friend was Achieng Abura, who is an Afro Jazz musician now, a very well-known musician in Kenya. She was my best friend. … Africa is the home of a lot of jazz musicians, like Manu Dibango and Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. And Fela Kuti. You could argue that some of Fela Kuti’s music is part of that.
So Africa was full of jazz musicians and I grew up listening to it. And my husband loves music and collects music and even was a freelance DJ for a very long time. … We listen to jazz in our home often.
Q: What do think the biggest challenge for the museum will be?
A: The main challenge will be changing the perception that has been out there about the museum. I don’t think it’s a challenge we cannot manage to overcome and overcome very soon.
I think part of the issue that I see is that we haven’t really told the story about what this museum is doing, from the tours of kids that are coming in every day to experience jazz and, of course, the Negro Leagues as well and the entire experience of 18th and Vine, to the performances going on. We have performances at the Blue Room four nights a week. We have performances at the Gem. The changing gallery has some marvelous exhibits.
In addition to that (I’m looking at) other ways we can enhance and increase what we are already doing. Certainly I think there could be more performances, especially at the Gem, enhancing our educational programming, rethinking and re-envisioning our permanent exhibits that again were put in place in the ’90s before technology and the Web was a major thing.
So what does a 21st-century museum look like in terms of exhibits and research and access?
Q: 18th and Vine is a famous neighborhood, but it is separated from downtown by a light-industrial area. There’s a sense that it’s geographically isolated. Do you think that’s a problem?
A: I don’t think so. Look at where we are. You can get to us from I-70, from the Paseo, from Truman Road, even I-29. When you think about any access you can imagine … we really are in a good location.
I think one of the things I would say is: Why is 18th and Vine important? 18th and Vine is important to Kansas City maybe the way Harlem is important to New York. Because this is … the cradle of African-American history and their contributions not only to this city but to the nation and to the world.
But it’s also the major history of this city. It is an asset. It is the history, the heritage of this community. You’ve got to preserve it, you’ve got to maintain it, you’ve got to make sure it is there for generations to come. And when you look at the things we promote as a city, jazz is one of them. So the place where jazz was born in Kansas City is not a place that can be neglected.
Q: The museum owns the John Baker Film Collection. Will the public have more opportunities to films from the collection?
A: One of the things we hope to do moving forward is … have more collections digitized and made accessible online, and really sort of step up the level of research you can do at the museum using our collections and our resources.
The John Baker collection is a very, very powerful collection. I think once we put it online you will see tremendous visitorship both online for the museum but also a lot of calls and inquiries related to the content.
The whole idea of elevating the museum to a place where you can actually develop research and scholarship is something I am absolutely looking forward to.
The American Jazz Museum
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday, $10 for adults; $6 for children 5-12. 1616 E. 18th St. 816-474-8463, AmericanJazzMuseum.org
At the Changing Gallery: “50 Women: A Celebration of Women’s Contribution to Ceramics” featuring local, national and international women ceramic artists. The exhibition, in partnership with UMKC Women’s Center, will be shown through May 13.